Adjust Your Focus

What is it to be a Muslim in India?


‘Vinay, there’s something you can write about’, read Rashmi’s WhatsApp message on my mobile screen. I had talked to Rashmi, the previous day, and had told her of my inefficiency in finding interesting stories to write about for this website.

‘What’, I replied to her message. She called back in return. What she told me over phone wasn’t something very new but it definitely was something that needed to be addressed. She informed me of how her Muslim friend, Zainab Khan, from Lucknow was denied a PG, only because she was a Muslim. I asked Rashmi to connect me with the girl. I called the girl, Zainab, at around 12:00 the next day. On explaining of why I had called, she told me that Rashmi had already informed her about me and that she was expecting a call from me.

“I had just completed my admission formalities in a private college here, and was looking for a private hostel instead of the hostel provided by the college”, told Zainab. “I was with my parents. We went looking for PG on the directions of one of our local contact in the city. As we entered the three-storey building with ‘PG – Only for girls’ board hung on the front, we were welcomed by its caretaker –Shyaam Lal, an elderly man in his forties”, she added.

‘He seemed to be decent man. He first took us in the office, a room on the first floor of the building –barely looking like an office, with few chairs and a table. He asked us of tea, to which my father denied. He then toured us the vacant rooms in his PG. The rooms were fine, and the price seemed reasonable to my parents. We came back to that office, to complete the formalities’, told Zainab over the phone.

Meanwhile I just realized that she had spoken for more than seven minutes on call, I interrupted in between, to refine the discussion on point. “Why did he show you the vacant rooms, or asked you for tea, if he had no intentions to give you the room”, I asked.

“See you don’t get my point. I am a Muslim, but I didn’t look like one, if you know what I mean”, said she. “I wasn’t wearing hijab, my mother wasn’t wearing hijab and my father wasn’t sporting beard. That, I believe, was the reason he welcomed us like that. He might have thought we were not Muslims at all”, she added further.

“It was only when he asked my name for completing the formalities that his attitude changed. He simply closed his register and told my father that he could not admit me in his PG”, added Zainab. She further ended by saying, “My father did try to ask the reason for this sudden change in his intention, but he did not reply. We had no options but to leave”.

This is perhaps a no new instance when something like this has occurred. Such incidents have happened time and again, and are happening everywhere. The concern here for me is that only few of these incidents comes to our knowledge, only the ones that happens to involve people of repute. For instance, even I haven’t written anytime before that my father’s colleagues were denied hotel in Rajasthan, while they were there for some research work. This happened in 2008.

Where does the problem lie, if not with the Muslims themselves?

The answer seems simple, at first –the Muslim identity. In Zainab’s case, she was treated well by the caretaker until he realized that Zainab was Muslim. Nonetheless, this simplistic derivation of the cause isn’t necessarily the full frame of the depths of problems that comes with Muslim Identity in India. Notions like Muslims are treated as second-class citizens, or they’re not safe aren’t completely false, if not completely true.

For it can be claimed that denial of a room to a Muslim by a tenant may essentially not prove that Muslims are treated as second-class citizens in India, but it surely does gives some hint of the picture. Aakar Patel, the executive director of Amnesty International India, argues in his piece for The Times of India, that rest of us (as in the rest of the Indian population who aren’t Muslim) are forcing Muslims to use the pretext ‘Indian’ before the word ‘Muslim’. He says nobody says ‘Indian Parsi’ or ‘Indian Christian’ but only Muslims.

While I was discussing this argument of Aakar Patel with Mohd Zahid, a post graduate teacher in Haji College who writes extensively on the subject and has authored several books on Muslim Identity, their issues and perception. He made a very interesting remark on Aakar’s argument.

“The reason why others do not have to use the word ‘Indian’ is because others are not seen, rather identified as the makers of Pakistan. We, the Muslims, on the other hand are regarded as the one who have made Pakistan even when we chose to live in India. That’s where the problem lies”, said Mohd Zahid.

So does that mean that association of Pakistan with Muslim Identity is the problem for all this?

This notion seems true to some extent when Mohd Zahid further argues, “Indian Muslims have always been associated with Pakistan by the Hindu fundamentalists, and interestingly Indian Muslims do relate themselves with Muslims of Pakistan and Bangladesh and other Islamic countries as members of Islamic faith”.

“And since whether or not we call ourselves ‘Indian Muslims’, we are linked to Pakistan, we are often regarded as internal enemies, or call it ‘threat to internal security of India’”, he further adds.

“This statement seems so seemingly generalized and loosely articulated”, I confront him. He, in reply to my confrontation, said, “If it’s not what I say, what’s the reason that girl Zainab wasn’t given room by the tenant. She was going to pay him like others, she was her customer and I have learned that customers are like Gods in their faith, then why.”

“It is because, the tenant as well as others like him know that the ally bodies of the ruling party in centre, and other Hindutva organizations have created such revolt against Muslims that these poor tenants can’t dare to fight them for the sake of losing a customer”, he adds to complete his argument.

He might be exaggerating this suiting his personal belief, but the denial of rooms and lodgings to Muslims lead to further ghettoization of Muslims. These poor Muslims eventually have to find shelter in Muslim areas. One may say that Muslims aren’t forced to live in ghettos, but examining such incidents which happen so regularly, one can argue that they indirectly are.


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